Climate of Opinion: How ‘Semi-Tropical’ Made a New Nature for Southern California

L.A. once sold its climate as "semi-tropical" – a term that emphasized the uniqueness of its nature. Semi-tropical was semi-miraculous.

Developers with rancho land to sell were eager to recast the environment of Southern California to imply warmth and lushness but not a steamy jungle. In Southern California’s embrace, every tropical crop – from bananas to passion fruit – would flourish without the health (and moral) risks of life in the actual tropics. And Anglo Californians would flourish too, in a newly “semi-tropical” nature.

Fan Leaf Plam, ca. 1890

Fan Leaf Plam, ca. 1890

Flappers and Indians in the Dream City of 1928: How the Jazz Age Ended in Long Beach

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, presiding over a long economic boom. George Cryer was mayor of Los Angeles, taking orders from the “City Hall Gang” of bootleggers, gamblers, and grafters. In Long Beach, after two months of hectic frivolity, the Jazz Age was about to end with a crash.

The Dream City was supposed to commemorate the founding of Spanish California in 1769. How minarets and camel rides symbolized the arrival of the Spanish was left unexplained. Authenticity was served by the real silks and silver bangles on “native girls” recruited from Long Beach women’s clubs and the presence of reservation Hopi and Navajos displayed in front of a plaster pueblo.

The image of the Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 blended Spanish California with Tunisian minarets.

The image of the Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 blended Spanish California with Tunisian minarets.

Border Medicine: Doctors, Disease, and Health Seekers in L.A.

At the border of three worldviews – native, colonial, and Anglo – medical care in Los Angeles by the 1850s blended empirical science, European and native folk traditions, and a large dose of medical hucksterism.

Anglo physicians in the mid-19th century racialized a way out of the paradox that Southern California was toxic for Native Americans and mixed-race Latinos but could be a tonic for Americans suffering from tuberculosis, chronic illness, or nervous exhaustion. Doctors successfully sold the idea that debilitated office workers and traumatized Civil War veterans became newly well and thrived in the reviving sunshine of Los Angeles while other races, under the same sun, grew lazy and declined into physical or moral sickness.

What finally made Southern California healthful … were its new possessors. The virtues of the environment could only be realized … under an Anglo sun. Health “is not across the ocean or upon some foreign shore, where the invalid is an alien or a stranger, but within our own land, under our own flag, and among our own people.” Los Angeles became a city of healing for sick Americans when Los Angeles was made white.

How the All-Year Club Sold the L.A. Summer

Summer travel to Los Angeles benefited from a new belief in the revitalizing power of summer sunlight. Pale complexions were on the way out; tans were in, and swimsuits in the 1920s began to show more and more skin. Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Summer travel to Los Angeles benefited from a new belief in the revitalizing power of summer sunlight. Pale complexions were on the way out; tans were in, and swimsuits in the 1920s began to show more and more skin. Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Summer came late to Southern California. Its invention had begun much earlier in the East. In 1861, the first summer camp opened in Connecticut. By 1875, the urban well-to-do were fleeing to cool Adirondack lodges. Eventually, there were more than 200 of them. In the 1880s, New York’s sweltering masses could ride the elevated trains to Coney Island and sit on the crowded sand.

In those turn-of-the-century summers, a young Sarah Bixby Smith walked along the four miles of broad, level shore below the bluffs at today’s Long Beach. Her beach was deserted, except for family picnics. “There were gulls and many little shore birds,” she remembered, “and never a footprint except the few we made, only to be washed away by the next tide.”

Southern California before World War I was principally a winter destination for well-to-do tourists, a January to April sort of place, where the elderly, the rheumatic, and the tubercular sheltered from Eastern damp and cold in the warmth of Redlands, Pasadena, or Monrovia. Hotels and resorts made money when New England shivered through another blizzard, but monied tourists avoided the heat and glare of Los Angeles in August.

Real L.A. Noir: The Case of the Buried Blonde

Gloria Graves was, for a season, the “Beautiful Girl Buried Alive” at the end of the Ocean Park pier.

Her handlers included Mr. Q, a name he used as a vaudeville performer. The other name he used was Robert Godwin. He was one of those mind-over-matter, higher-consciousness hucksters who regularly turned up in L.A. to make a few bucks from the gullible or the bored. Godwin stuck the title Dr. on his name and called himself a hypnotist. Maybe he was too. He had a look that could etch glass. He had a strange way with women. You’ve probably guessed that he’s dead before this story is done.

Mr. Q exhibited Gloria as the “Beautiful Girl Buried Alive” for a dime a look down a long shaft that opened over Gloria’s almost pretty face and conventionally blond hair, shining in the glare of an electric light.

Gloria Graves sleeps in her coffin.

Gloria Graves sleeps in her coffin.

You could have seen on any street in Hollywood the same face and hair repeated a hundred times for free. That didn’t stop the customers from paying ten cents and peering at the girl lying below in her coffin.

The curious could shout questions down to her, and she would answer. She had a nice voice.

What Happened in L.A. During the Civil War?

Civil War-era Los Angeles was a frontier town that was barely beginning to grow into a city.

The American Civil War and Los Angeles might seem worlds apart. The conflict, after all, was fought between North and South; Los Angeles was in the distant West. It was fought over the issue of slavery; California was (officially) a free state. Tensions between northern and southern states had been simmering for decades; Los Angeles had only been recently been wrested from Mexico.

Encampment

Nevertheless, the horrors of war nearly came to Los Angeles as the rebellion inflamed passions in distant Southern California. For a time, it seemed that Southern sympathizers might capture Los Angeles for the Confederacy, or that California might secede from the Union, form an independent "Pacific Republic," and declare neutrality.

'We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist' – Los Angeles When the Civil War Began

Secessionist city officials, armed conspirators, and Confederate recruiters made Los Angeles ripe for conflict in 1861,

The shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor started on Friday, April 12, 1861. The Civil War had begun.

In Los Angeles, where the news would arrive almost two weeks later, an Army captain – sole representative of the United States military – waited in an adobe warehouse at the edge of the city. Army muskets, ammunition, and cavalry sabers had been hidden under sacks of oats and flour. He had shown his wife where the pistols were kept. Together, they would make some defense of the Army’s stores when the secessionist “Monte boys” came to take them.

Captain Winfield Scott Hancock expected that a raid on his warehouse would start the annexation of Southern California to the secessionist cause. He believed that many Angeleños would welcome it.

The spirit of disunion grew worse in Southern California while Captain Hancock and his wife waited through the first three weeks of April. He surrounded the Army storehouse in Los Angeles with the high-walled wagons that hauled military freight. He collected enough pistols at his home to arm “a few loyal friends.” Among the few likely to stand with him were District Attorney Ezra Drown, rancher and pro-Union polemicist Jonathan Warner, publisher Charles Conway of the Semi-Weekly Southern News, and Los Angeles port operator Phineas Banning.

The spirit of disunion grew worse in Southern California, kept active by the editor of the Los Angeles Star.

The spirit of disunion grew worse in Southern California, kept active by the editor of the Los Angeles Star.

The Enchanted House

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 by Larry Sultan from the series The Valley. Photograph courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 by Larry Sultan from the series The Valley. Photograph courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

I often daydream of houses, and I think Larry Sultan did too. Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher of the spaces of our lives, insisted that daydreams of home — of any place of desire and loss — require shelter. He also said, “to be housed is to dream.”

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 might almost be an annotation to Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. As Bachelard believed, as Vermeer showed and as Larry Sultan shows, a home is both a body of images and an anticipatory space. Every house contains a daydream of its future as much as a memory of its past. The chair in the vacant room improvises a sitter; the doorway, a hesitant trespasser; the staircase, a trysting couple, and above them, a bedroom, a bed.

As much as we might try — by critical analysis or real estate speculation — no house is ever entirely disenchanted. We feel the house in this photograph is haunting itself, just as all houses, when temporarily empty, are haunted by themselves. We might also say that this corridor, staircase, and inner room persist in dreaming for us when we’re away, when we remember again those places in a house we knew or think we knew. Read more.

Horrible Catastrophe!

Disaster in Civil-War-Era Los Angeles

On a blustery Monday afternoon in the spring of 1863, a small, steam-powered tender passed down the tidal creek that led from New San Pedro to the deepwater anchorage where the side-wheel steamship “Senator” waited. Earlier that afternoon, the “Senator” had received a consignment of freight from the tender. Now the “Ada Hancock” was returning with passengers bound for San Francisco. The little vessel was crowded with 50 or more adults and children.

Albert Sidney Johnston, Jr., the 17-year-old son of Confederate General A. S. Johnston, was on board, perhaps considering if he would join the war that had killed his father the year before. Louis Schlesinger, a Los Angeles merchant, had business interests that required the three-day trip to San Francisco as did Maximilian Strobel, one of the founders of the Anaheim colony.

Hiram Kimball and Thomas Atkinson, Mormon missionaries, were on their way from Salt Lake City to Hawai’i. Lumberman William Waddell was returning home to Santa Cruz. Henry Oliver was returning to San Francisco with stock certificates and documents connected to his Arizona mining investments.

Fred Kerlin, employed at the Tejon Reservation, carried $30,000 in paper currency. William Ritchie, a messenger for Well Fargo & Company, watched over a strongbox with $11,000 in gold dust from the Arizona mines and $575 in coins and bank notes.

Maria de Jesus Wilson and Medora Hereford. Medora (right) was the sister of the second wife of Benjamin Davis Wilson. Maria was Wilson’s daughter by his first wife, Ramona Yorba. Both Maria and Medora were aboard the Ada Hancock. Photograph courtesy of the B. D. Wilson Family Collection, Huntington Library

Maria de Jesus Wilson and Medora Hereford. Medora (right) was the sister of the second wife of Benjamin Davis Wilson. Maria was Wilson’s daughter by his first wife, Ramona Yorba. Both Maria and Medora were aboard the Ada Hancock. Photograph courtesy of the B. D. Wilson Family Collection, Huntington Library

How the Daughters of Charity Brought Social Services to 1800s L.A.

Until the Daughters arrived in 1856, L.A. offered few social services for the sick, the poor, and the orphaned.

Los Angeles was a flea-bitten, murderous, mean little town in the early 1850s. Rancho beef went north to the gold fields; gold came south to be gambled on horse races and cards or spent on Chinese silk and Manila embroidery or paid out for fandangos that filled whole days with dancing.

In the saloons and brothels that fronted on the city’s unlighted dirt streets, aguardiente – “ardent water” (wine distilled into white lighting) – fueled so many deadly brawls among cattle drovers and vaqueros that Los Angeles was possibly the most violent city in America.

In fact, it was barely a city even in mid-19th century terms. There were no hospitals and no services for the orphaned or abandoned. Genuine piety was on daily display, but charity was a family matter. In a town filling with Anglo strangers after sleepy colonial decades, to be helpless and alone was a curse. When periodic epidemics of smallpox and cholera swept through the town in the early 1850s, the sick were quarantined in a wretched “pest house” or were nursed by boarding house proprietors paid so much a head by the county.

St. Vincent’s Hospital, about 1900. In 1883, The Daughters of Charity purchased land in Beaudry Park at a cost of $10,000 and erected a new hospital building a year later. In 1918, the hospital was renamed St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

St. Vincent’s Hospital, about 1900. In 1883, The Daughters of Charity purchased land in Beaudry Park at a cost of $10,000 and erected a new hospital building a year later. In 1918, the hospital was renamed St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Laurel Canyon Suite: Gods, Myths, and Fires

The canyon's millennia-long history reveals a complicated and dark mythology.

The myth also involves sex and murder. But there are gods in the story and glory of a kind near the end. In one version, the myth begins with a girl – pretty, well-connected, high strung (they would have said; today, that she had gender issues). This version ends with a divine musician and a laurel tree. But the myth doesn’t end there, or, rather, the story has neither a beginning nor an end, only further renditions – sometimes melancholy and bluesy, sometimes raucous and lowdown, sometimes elegant and lingering – making the myth even more dreamlike, harder to place. Think of the myth as an album on the theme of longing; just as predictably for Los Angeles, desire for undying beauty and youth. More

Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951. Seen from the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the street grid of mid-century Los Angeles glows. Photograph courtesy of Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951. Seen from the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the street grid of mid-century Los Angeles glows. Photograph courtesy of Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

The Problem of Profitable Leisure: Bringing Chautauqua to Los Angeles

TED Talks of the late 1800s: When the Chautauqua movement came to California

By the thousands, between 1881 and 1940, vacationers who called themselves Chautauquans gathered for a summer week or two at rustic campgrounds in the canyons of Pacific Palisades and along the beaches of Venice, Long Beach, and Redondo Beach. They were drawn there by a national movement of progressive Protestants that idealized learning but also offered entertainment, uplift, and healthy outdoor recreation.

Chautauquans were fiercely proud of their name, which bound them to the “mother Chautauqua” in upstate New York. Their movement was born in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake and began as a summer training program for Methodist Sunday school teachers – origins that reappeared in the campgrounds that “daughter Chautauquas” established in Los Angeles (and elsewhere in California) in the 1880s. An appreciation of nature, some proximity to water, and a spirit of Methodist belief linked the Chautauquan source to the Los Angeles summer camps and to what became dozens of local Chautauqua reading circles.

Chautauqua was many things to its members. It was a home study course that, if followed over four years, gave graduates the breadth of a liberal arts education.It was a weekly meeting of Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle members where readings in the home study course were discussed, guided by instructions and questionnaires in the monthly Chautauquan magazine. And it was an opportunity to spend a few days each summer with other Chautauquans while attending lectures, performances, and discussions in an outdoor setting. More

Graduates, 1890. These graduates of the educational program of the Saratoga Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle at Pacific Grove are holding their honorary diplomas. Photograph courtesy of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and Saratoga History Museum

Graduates, 1890. These graduates of the educational program of the Saratoga Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle at Pacific Grove are holding their honorary diplomas. Photograph courtesy of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and Saratoga History Museum

Draw, Stud, and Hold’em: A Brief History of Poker in LA

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Although hardly anything remains of the era when California was the terminal part of the Old West, one survivor of those wide-open days lingers. Around tables in shiny casinos and seedy cardrooms in more than 140 cities, poker players eye the competition, calculate the odds, and still reach for cards that will make – or break – their luck.

Poker was a western game from its beginnings in New Orleans in the first decade of the 1800s through its spread further west by riverboat gamblers. Poker’s fast pace was made for California’s Gold Rush camps, where sudden wealth and loss were facts of camp life after 1849. “California is the place where poker has been most favorably received and industriously cultivated as a science,” wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1888, who wrote about all the ways in which gambling had shaped the experience of California.

But the poker player knows science isn’t enough. “Luck is his religion,” Bancroft added, “and in it he is a firm believer and devotee. There is but one thing certain about it however, and that is sooner or later it will change. To know when this point is reached is the sum of all knowledge.” More

A Walk Along Long Beach’s Gaudy, Tawdry, Bawdy Pike

The Pike was one of Southern California's largest playgrounds by the sea.

On July 4, 1902, the Los Angeles “rabble” arrived, crowding on a new line that quickly became the PE’s most profitable. Many of the visitors that summer headed for Charles Drake’s Long Beach Bath House, with its 60-by-120-foot concrete pool, specially designed Ladies Plunge, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, Casino Café, and bowling alley. There were band concerts every afternoon and evening but, as the proprietors carefully pointed out, no liquor.

By 1906, Drake’s Long Beach Bath House and Amusement Company had bought up much of the oceanfront below Pine Avenue and leased the land to lunch counters, a fortuneteller, candy and popcorn stands, a roller rink, and a shooting gallery. They were connected by a 12-foot-wide boardwalk that led to the colonnaded pool building. “All along this particular portion of the beach,” wrote a reporter for the Evening Tribune, “stands the row of stands, some of quaint design, and an interesting sight to the tourist. It is here that the hot tamale vender, the peanut crisp man and the pretty girls who sell sweets of all kinds, find a living for themselves.” More

Photograph courtesy of Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Photograph courtesy of Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Interpreter of Dreams: On the Passing of Kevin Starr

California historian and former state librarian Kevin Starr has died.

Starr accepted the convention that the idea of California would forever be connected to dreams, with the implication that Californian longing was merely a dream, merely desire without substance. But Starr’s use of “the dream” – as something that might be manifested by Californian desire – was his way of secularizing another aspect of his faith – his Catholic belief in the incarnation, in the mystery of the divine turned into flesh, or, as one of the titles in his California history series puts it, in the realization of “material dreams.” More

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

This Jewish Pioneer Chronicled a Changing L.A. from 1853 to 1913

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Los Angeles was a city made of mud – of adobe, which is dried mud – when Harris Newmark arrived in 1853. He had come to California, as many did in the mid-19th century, for something better than his birthplace, better than his life in Löbau in Prussia (now Lubawa, Poland), better than working for his father in the manufacture of ink and boot blacking to be wholesaled to retailers in Denmark and Sweden, and better than sales trips in miserable weather on poor roads or over rougher seas. Newmark was just 19; of course he was willing to leave when his older brother wrote from Los Angeles offering him passage money. More

Retailing in Old LA: Dripping Tar, Imaginary Coins, Whiskey, and Horse Blankets

Photograph courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Digital Library

Photograph courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Digital Library

Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Stores in 1850s Los Angeles were small, half-lighted from the crookedness of the town’s street plan, with a Colt’s revolver under the sales counter against the town’s terrible violence. When night fell, stores were shuttered against theft and riot with stout panels of cast iron. Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Laura Eversten King, writing in 1900, described the town’s shopping district as “two or three streets whose business centered in a few tiendas, or stores, decorated with strings of chilis or jerked beef. The one window of each tienda was barred with iron, the tiendero sitting in the doorway to protect his wares, or to watch for customers. Sidewalks were unknown. Pedestrians marched single file in the middle of the street, in winter to enjoy the sunshine, in summer to escape the trickling tears of brea [tar] which, dropping from the roofs, branded their linen or clogged their footsteps.” More

The Invention of Southern California's Spanish Fantasy Past

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license

Helen Hunt Jackson – misunderstood romantic, misremembered advocate of Native American rights – lingered some weeks in Los Angeles between December 1881 and the end of January 1882, on assignment for The Century Magazine to write about Southern California as a destination for adventurous tourists. She apparently came with a larger purpose than a series of travel sketches, although her purpose was never fully realized. The seductive power of an invented past, created by rival mythmakers seeking to preserve their place in newly American Los Angeles, made her plan a failure and Helen Hunt Jackson famous. More

Shock of the New: Los Angeles vs. Modernism

Why was the city of Los Angeles so scared of modern art in the mid-20th century?

In 1939, conservatives on the county museum board turned down a gift of modern works from the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg. In 1944, the Arensbergs tried to interest UCLA in the collection, but nothing came of their offer. Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, and Fanny Brice founded the Modern Institute of Art to keep the Arensberg collection in Los Angeles, but the institute closed when funding ran out. When James Byrnes, the first curator of modern art at the county museum, sought to buy works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in 1947, he was advised by one of the trustees to keep the paintings off the museum walls. More

Photograph courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Milk Made These Communities of Southeast L.A. County

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Archive

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Archive

We’ve gotten used to L.A.’s “littles” and “towns” – among them Little Ethiopia, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Filipinotown – the places where immigrant aspiration gets a foothold, nostalgia is served, and Jonathan Gold finds the joints he loves. Official recognition of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods is fairly recent, but Los Angeles has always been culturally diverse, even as far back as the end of the Mexican colonial period and the start of the city’s Americanization.

French and Italian communities clustered around the old plaza in the mid-19th century, as did Basques and German Jews, creating some of the city’s earliest civic institutions. Sonoratown, north of the plaza, and old Chinatown to the east kept those ethnic communities at a distance. At the edge of San Pedro, a Japanese fishing village – Furusato – flourished on Terminal Island from the turn of the century until World War II and internment.

South and east of downtown, along the Orange County border and straddling it, are lesser-known ethnic communities that continue to hybridize with suburban Los Angeles. Milk made two of them: Bellflower and Artesia, where Holland and the Azores met. More